The Ironbound District of Newark, New Jersey


Very little has been written, and very little is generally known, in regard to the contribution of the Portuguese to the ethnic complexion of the American people." (D'Eca 1980:365) As of 1930 there were only 118,242 Portuguese in the United States. P. 366

"Newark remains New Jersey's foremost city in every way -- financially, commercially, industrially, and as a center for transportation." Newark is the transportation hub of New Jersey through Port Newark and the Newark Airport. (Cunningham, John 1978:115)

Impressions of the Ironbound District. This area contains people of more than 50 ethnic groups in a population of around 50,000. Throughout the area, there is an intermingling of residential, industrial, and commercial buildings. The neighborhood is on one and two story houses built tightly together. (Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, 1983) The area is an interesting blend of Spanish, Portuguese from Portugal, and Brazilian Portuguese. There are more shops specializing in Brazilian products than in Portuguese products it seems to me.

How to Get There

By train: The Ironbound is a train rider's dream destination. It main drag, Ferry Street, begins just steps away from the rear entrance of Penn Station. PATH and NJ Transit trains (as well as Amtrak, for you out-of-staters) all drop you at Penn Station, in downtown Newark.

By car: If you must drive, be forewarned that parking in the neighborhood is tight, especially around Ferry Street. Weekends are really tough. From the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, Routes 78, 280, or 1&9, follow the signs into downtown Newark, then take Market Street east under the railroad bridge and into the Ironbound. Park the car and explore on foot.


In 1666 Newark was founded by a group of Puritans from Connecticut led by Robert Treat who settled at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets (known as the Four Corners). Aaron Burr was a citizen of Newark. Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in nearby Weehawken in 1804.

The area was known as Down Neck because it is partly located on a neck of the Passaic River. It is also known as Ironbound because it is surrounded by railroad tracks and bordered by several major highways (Routes 1 and 9 and South Street).

Newark was a quiet town until the industrial revolution hit. The manufacture of jewelry, begun by E. Hinsdale in 1801, took off after the War of 1812. Seth Boyden invented a process for making malleable iron and another process for patent leather. He also built the city's first steam engine. With the completion of the morris Canal and the coming of the railroads in the 1830s, industries boomed: iron, chemical, brewing, tanning and leather (Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, 1983).

Built around 1840, was the P. Ballantine and Sons Brewery, Ferry and Freeman Streets. It was closed in 1972. This once huge complex, now partly demolished. At one time it was the largest brewing establishment in the United States. (Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, 1983).

Newark became a city in 1836. By 1840 its population was 17,000. This was soon to change with increasing immigration. In the 1830's the Irish and Germans started coming (Helmreich 1999:10). The Germans and Irish settled in the Ironbound section. They then moved to Prince Street. Then towards the turn of the 20th century, Italians, Hungarians, Poles, and Portuguese immigrants started coming. Jewish immigrants started coming in larger numbers in 1881. Some 45,000 of them came to Newark. (Helmreich 1999:22) The first group of Jewish, mostly from Germany settled in the Canal Street area from Hunterdon Street to the west to Adams Street to the east and from Clay Street to the north to Clinton Avenue to the south. By the turn of the century they had moved into the Central or Third Ward, replacing the Irish and Germans who had come there from the Ironbound section of the city. (Helmreich 1999:49-50) The Jews started moving into the Prince Street area, and the Irish and Germans started moving out.

The Jews owned the stores strung out along Ferry Street. The main drag that ran through the neighborhood was Ferry Street. Boys would dive off near the Jackson Street Bridge. It was a close-knit community with its center at the synagogue on Jefferson Street, Congregation Toras Emes. The geographical separation of Down Neck (Ironbound)from the rest of Newark has given those who grew up there a special feeling of esprit des corps even greater than those who came from greater Newark. Helmreich 1999:55 Italians and Jews were socially friendly. Helmreich 1999:170

Before 1865 Italians were unknown in Newark. The first big immigration stream was between 1870 and 1880. The first Italian quarter in Newark was in the "First Ward" in an area surrounding Boyden and Drift Streets. They fought with the Irish. The Italians then moved to Seventh and Eighth Avenues and the intervening streets and alleys. (Churchill:33-34) River Street, between Mulberry Street and the present McCarter Highway, was the center of the second Italian colony established in Newark in the decade 1870-1880.

The Italians flourished in the River Street colony, but overflow soon pushed east of the old Pennsylvania railroad station into the heart of the "Down Neck" (ironbound) section. By 1900 Italians had moved along Ferry Street as far as Wilson Avenue (then Hamburg Place) and gradually filled all intersecting and parallel streets southward towards the port meadows and wasteland. The Italian occupation of the "Ironbound" era, displacing native American and previously established German groups, was symbolized by the sale of a Protestant church which around 1900 became the church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It was on the corner of McWhorter and Ferry Streets, almost in the center of the slowly dissolving River Street and the rapidly growing Ironbound Italian quarter. (Churchill 1975:27)

In 1897 the Jackson Street Swing Bridge opened to traffic. It is a steam-powered bridge.

The growth of the black community really began in the early 20th century. In the 1920s in keeping with the spirit of the times the Newark Chamber of Commerce advertised on billboards in order to attract blacks to the city. Helmreich 1999:38-39

Newark became a major Jewish center. In 1948 among American cities Newark had the seventh largest Jewish population, about 12 percent of the city' total population, represented by some 40 synagogues. Helmreich 1999:30

In the 1950s the city of Newark took note of the dramatic increase in the number of blacks in their community. In mid-1957 a report entitled "Group Relations in Newark - 1957" reported problems of prejudice in Newark against blacks. Another consideration was the arrival in Newark of Puerto Rican migrants. The report said that the Ironbound neighborhood was the polyglot "melting pot" in Newark. It had a large lower middle class with a high mixture of land uses. The are was essentially stable and satisfactorily maintained, except at the fringes, where industrial and other non-residential encroachments are heaviest. There were many whites in this area. (Volume III. P. 6)

Newark suffered greatly from the July 12, 1967 riots. A taxicab driver was arrested and harshly treated. This sparked five days of rioting in the Central and South Wards with an estimated $8 million dollars worth of looting and almost $2 million dollars in property damage. Out of it came a reputation for urban decay and crime from which it has never quite recovered. (Helmreich 1999:40 & 7)

Imamu Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), a nationally known black playwright, was a native of Newark. He wrote about the tensions between Jews and blacks. Helmreich 1999:37

In 1990 Essex County was 41 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic. In 1990 Newark was 59 percent black, or almost 60 percent, and 26 percent Hispanic. (Stansfield 1998:135, 136, 143)

The Portuguese

In 1930 there were a number of cities of 100,000 or more where there were 1,000 or more Portuguese: New York City was 4th in rank (with 3,998 Portuguese), while Newark was 7th (with 2,088 Portuguese). The leading city was New Bedford, Massachusetts with 13,795 Portuguese, followed by Fall River, Massachusetts (with 9,783).

The Portuguese snapped up cheap land after the riots and rebuilt the Ironbound section into a viable community. (Helmreich 1999:43)


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